Charles Bronson once said of his Albert Johnson character in this movie: "There are two schools of thought about the characters . . . Some believe the man [Albert Johnson] was a criminal. Others believe, as I do, that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. We decided to show him as a man who was a victim of someone else's need to perform violence. In trying to protect himself against an unprovoked attack, he was forced to kill one of his assailants."
When they appeared together in the box-office hit movie The Dirty Dozen (1967), Lee Marvin was the top-billed star whilst Charles Bronson was among the ensemble cast credited alphabetically and after Marvin. By 1981, Bronson received top billing for Death Hunt (1981) whilst Marvin received second billing. However, some theatrical posters have Marvin's name elevated in height above Bronson's even though Bronson's appears first on the left and Marvin's second on the right.
The manhunt that this movie is based on was the first time that airplanes were used by authorities in Canada to track down a wanted fugitive. The type of plane used was a a Bristol open cockpit bi-plane and a real-life replica was constructed for this movie.
The movie was directed by Peter R. Hunt whose work on the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) was a significant factor in his hiring, as both this picture and that film are both predominantly set in snow-capped mountains.
The story for this movie has actually been filmed twice before making this the third version. The first time was The Mad Trapper (1972) and the second time was Challenge to Be Free (1975). A fourth version will be The Mad Trapper (2017).
Pilot Vern Ohmert was hired by the production to build a replica of a Bristol open cockpit bi-plane. This aircraft was the actual plane that was used by the Canadian Mounties to hunt down Albert Johnson during the 1930s. Ohmert visited the Imperial War Museum in London where two original planes were housed. Ohmert photographed and measured the historic planes to their exact technical specifications for the building of his model plane for the movie.
In this movie, the pilot character of Captain Hank Tucker of the Royal Canadian Air Force, played by Scott Hylands, was based on Captain Wilfrid Reid "Wop" May, OBE, DFC who was the real life pilot who assisted the manhunt with aerial surveillance.
This Charles Bronson movie is set in the snowy Canadian Yukon Territory Mountains. It was made and released only just a couple of years after Bronson's Love and Bullets (1979) whose main location was the snow-capped Swiss Mountains.
Because the word 'Death' appeared in this movie's Death Hunt (1981) title, the film evoked Charles Bronson's controversial earlier movie, Death Wish (1974). This movie was actually Bronson's first of two consecutive pictures to feature the word 'Death' in the title. Death Wish II (1982) was his next picture. Bronson made seven movies with this word in the title, five of them being in the 'Death Wish' franchise. Messenger of Death (1988) was another example. The final time would be in Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994), where the word appeared twice.
The film is a fictionalized account of the greatest manhunt in Canadian history. The chase by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was conducted during the early 1930s in the Canadian regions of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon in Northern Canada.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The Sergeant Edgar Millen character of the Royal Canadian Mountain Police was fictionalized for this movie. Played by Lee Marvin, the character was changed from being a young-buck as he was in 1931-1932 to a hardened middle-aged hard-drinking man typical of Marvin's persona, both on-screen and off. In the true life story that this movie is based on, Constable Edgar Millen was shot dead by Albert Johnson (who is played by Charles Bronson), but this doesn't happen in the movie.
The Captain Hank Tucker of the Royal Canadian Air Force character was fictionalized for this movie. In this picture he is portrayed as a yahoo who fires wildly at the search party and ends up dead. In the real life events of 1931-1932, the person his character is based on, Captain Wilfrid Reid "Wop" May, did not die in these circumstances by crashing his plane into the side of a mountain. May was credited for both tracking down Albert Johnson and saving one of the mounties who had been shot by him.